Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter summarizes the best parts of the commentary for An American Werewolf in London.
Our focus on horror-themed commentaries continues with one of the best werewolf movies of all time, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London.
The film’s 25th anniversary saw a special edition released to home video that even on DVD is worth picking up as it features a wealth of special features. The feature-length making-of documentary is entertaining and informative, but there’s also fun to be had with the commentary track featuring both lead actors – David Naughton and Griffin Dunne.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the An American Werewolf in London commentary.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Commentators: David Naughton (actor), Griffin Dunne (actor)
1. The opening scenes were filmed in Wales as a more convenient substitute for Northern England.
2. Dunne recalls stopping to use the facilities in the sole trailer with a restroom only to be interrupted partway through when a driver hooked it to a pickup and towed it away from set with him still in it.
3. Dunne had never done a feature film before and didn’t even audition for this one, but a ten minute talk with writer/director Landis (along with a quick read of the script) got him the role. Naughton recalls a similar situation, but in his conversation Landis mentioned the Dr. Pepper commercials. “He was a Pepper, and I was a Pepper, so we hit it off.”
4. They improvised saying goodbye to the sheep as they exit the car for their hike across the moors.
5. As production approached Dunne recalls Landis repeatedly asking if he was claustrophobic. “I didn’t know what that meant until I ended up in those masks.”
6. The interior of The Slaughtered Lamb was filmed back in London, and the pub’s clientele consists mostly of local stage actors.
7. The attack scene saw Dunne just going for it with the screams because he knew that was what Landis wanted. “It was just half a wolf on a wheelbarrow,” he says, but the primitive nature of the effect was buoyed by the intensity of the performance.
8. Both actors recall audiences being confused by the post-attack scene where David looks to the right and sees the naked dead man with bullet wounds. He’s the werewolf, obviously, but the paucity of werewolf films leading up to 1981 apparently left people clueless as to how they operate.
9. Landis threatened to relocate the film to Paris after British Actors’ Equity balked about Dunne’s role not going to a member. The director actually went so far as to scout locations in France, but Equity backed down and allowed Dunne. Had he moved the production Landis already planned to re-title the film An American Werewolf in Paris. We really dodged a bullet there huh?
10. Naughton says that while most people assume the werewolf make-up was the most painful for him the worst was actually the dream sequence of him in a bed in the forest. The glass contact lenses were the reason.
11. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is apparently Landis’ favorite book and one he was trying to adapt into a film for years. “He thought that would be his next movie,” says Dunne.
12. The flashback/nightmare with the Nazi demons confused audiences and led to some walk-outs. Naughton and Dunne both love it, although the former does recall one issue he had. “The stuntman who was holding that real knife to my neck couldn’t see out of the mask,” he says, “so that kind of concerned me.”
13. Landis’ main direction to Dunne once he returned as the deceased and steadily decomposing Jack was to stay happy. “He said no matter what you do don’t ever sound in anything else but in a really good mood.”
14. Naughton points out how confident Landis was in Rick Baker’s spectacular make-up effect work during Jack’s first undead visit. “There’s no shadows, it’s just bright lights and get as good a look at it as you can.”
15. “There are not a lot of showers in London,” says Naughton, so they had to build one for the shower scene between David and Nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter). “We had quite a time trying to regulate the water temperature.” “Right there it’s freezing,” suggests Dunne during the next shot.
16. The two share some make-up memories including Dunne finding himself incredibly depressed the first time he had the stage-one make-up applied during tests in California. “I looked like I’d been killed just a few minutes earlier, and it was really unsettling.” Naughton remembers walking through Piccadilly Circus with Dunne in the final stage make-up – “People were clearing a nice big path,” recalls Dunne.
17. Dunne was unfamiliar with press junkets and such before this film, and he recalls going to the Stanhope Hotel for one. “When you guys all left I stayed in the hotel for a week, and Universal just paid. They never even noticed. I had this crappy little apartment in the Village, and I just lived uptown at the Stanhope living on room service.”
18. They made the cat on the window ledge hiss by holding up another cat towards its face.
19. The first thing Baker said to Naughton when they met in California was “I feel sorry for you.” He was referring to the time and effort that was going to be required to make the casts and molds for the make-up. “Having that thing dry around your face with those two tubes,” adds Dunne, “it did occur to me that if Rick was a psychotic all he had to do was take out those little straws and watch you suffocate.”
20. Dunne wonders why the film never used Warron Zevon’s “Werewolf of London” song, but they still don’t know. Naughton does recall that the filmmakers asked Cat Stevens for permission to use “Moonshadow” only to be told no “because he believed that werewolves really existed.”
21. David’s transformation scene took six days to shoot, and one of those days required Naughton be secured beneath the floor with only his head, arms, and upper torso exposed. “They’d take five, and they’d all leave, shut off the lights, and I’d just kind of hang in there in the floor going ‘this will be over one day.’”
22. David’s nude awakening in the zoo required some bravery on Naughton’s part. His exit from the wolf cage was done in one take, motivated in part by the unplanned approach of the two wolves as he stood up. The older woman who he startles was an extra who was told he’d b popping up – but wasn’t told he’d be naked. Filming ran past the allotted time too so the park visitors walking around in the background as David runs around in the buff are real.
23. The version of Jack in the movie theater is an elaborate puppet. Dunne is actually seated behind the head and beneath a black sheet controlling the mouth to keep it in sync with his dialogue.
24. They both point out that the fake film title See You Next Tuesday is a Landis Easter egg, but they don’t know why. It’s also unclear if they’re aware of the phrase’s vulgar meaning.
25. Per Dunne, this was the first film to receive permission to temporarily shut down Piccadilly Circus for filming. “I don’t believe they had permission to do a car accident though,” adds Naughton, “and they just sort of grabbed it six o’clock in the morning.”
26. They recall telling Landis that the lack of silver bullets used to kill David meant this could become a franchise. The director told them in no uncertain terms that there would be no sequel.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
- Dunne: “This is my favorite moment ever acting. Watch, real snot is going to come out of my nose.”
- Dunne: “John’s going to be so upset when we mention how much we made up.”
- Dunne: “I remember you were getting very cranky that we had to sing so much in the rain.”
- Dunne: “Oh look at Jenny. She never would go out with me.”
- Dunne: “My mother was deeply disturbed by the movie.”
- Dunne: “You’re naked a lot in this movie.”
Naughton and Dunne clearly had a fun time on the production and share some humorous memories throughout the commentary. There are a few gaps as they get sucked into the film, but their recollections and wisecracks make up for the downtime.